Mediated scandalization
in Scandinavia

November 30, 2012 • Ethics and Quality • by

Scandinavian countries like Denmark, Norway, Sweden, and Finland have long been classified as “scandal-free zones” – especially when compared to other parts of Western Europe and the United States. But lately even Nordic countries residing in the “free zone” have been subject to scandal, which is shown in the new book Scandalous! The Mediated Construction of Political Scandals in Four Nordic Countries, written by journalism professors Sigurd Allern (Oslo University) and Ester Pollack (Stockholm University).

According to the book’s authors – in cooperation with Anu Kantola (University of Helsinki) and Mark Blach- Ørsten (University of Roskilde, Denmark) – Denmark, Finland, Norway, and Sweden share many similarities, particularly their political institutions, media systems, economic structures, and educational and social welfare systems. But countries from Northern Europe are also very distinct, for example concerning political history and international relations. In matters of political scandals the situation is no different, while some countries share similarities others bare subtle distinctions. The investigation of powerful institutions is a central motive and professional objective for many journalists. Such “sleuth-dog-activities” can ultimately follow scandals, and scandals can help to justify the media as a fourth estate. According to the book’s authors, at times they result in journalistic awards for investigators, however it would be naive to interpret all mediated scandals as a means to strengthen democratic processes. Political news competes for attention with news from other fields like accidents, natural disasters and crime. This type of competition leads the media to pay attention to political events that are ripe for dramatization.

According to the book’s authors, journalists dramatize their content through the “presentation of the norm violation, the journalistic angle, the sources to be highlighted (or suppressed), the visualization of the scandal and the proportions attributed to the affair all depend on journalistic decisions and choices.” Journalists draw on a cultural store of frames using fairy tales, sagas, and myths; for example the pauper who won the crown, the scheme of David and Goliath, or the struggle of the individual against bureaucracy. Thus the interpretation of scandal is strongly simplified and typically presented as a melodrama. If there is a confession from a scandalized person during the drama’s final act, he or she may appear in the role of the repentant sinner who (through the media) asks his or her organization and the public for forgiveness. According to the book’s authors, “In practice, modern media has taken over the role previously occupied by the church in evaluating sinful conduct, suggesting penance and considering forgiveness (…).”

The role of media professionals is highlighted by Kantola who researched journalist reactions following one of the biggest political scandals in Finland. The scandal, which erupted in 2008 when it was revealed that members of parliament had broken campaign finance disclosure laws by not revealing their election donors, highlighted the contrasting opinions amongst journalists. In this regard, Kantola shows enormous differences in how journalists judge a scandal depending on age and generation. Older journalists, born before the `60s, saw the scandal as exaggerated. Younger journalists, born in the late `60s and after, had a more positive view – for them it, “questioned the existing consensual political system, […] [it] revealed the rotten side of politics, and was an eye opener […].” According to Allern and Pollack, a political scandal involves political institutions, processes, decisions – or politicians serving in their function as publicly appointed officials. In pursuance of their study, the number of political scandals increased in all Scandinavian countries between 1980 and 2009 – especially in recent years.

In both decades, from 1980 to 1989 and from 1990 to 1999, in cooperation with Kantola and Blach- Ørsten, the book’s authors registered just 20 percent of the scandals. This number rose during the last decade, between 2000 and 2009, to nearly 60 percent. In Sweden this trend is very distinct, for example 14 percent of the scandals appeared in the first decade, 20 percent between 1990 and 1999, and 67 percent between 2000 and 2009. Overall the norm transgressions which lead to scandals in Scandinavia can vary. Economic affairs offenses, including tax evasion or corruption, dominate in Denmark (38 percent), Norway (53 percent) and Sweden (39 percent). The norm transgression “abuse of power” also leads to scandal, particularly in Sweden (26 percent). Scandals concerning “unacceptable personal behavior” increased most from 1980-2009. This norm transgression, which most notably increased in Finland (49 percent of the scandals between 1980 and 2009), includes illegitimate sexual affairs, sexual harassment, and alcohol abuse.

The authors state that as personal and private realms have increasingly come under scrutiny, “the boundary between (…) an organization’s ‘front stage’ and ‘back stage’ has simultaneously become blurred.” This may be seen as paradoxical “that while Nordic societies have become more tolerant and liberal on many issues, (…) political leaders have been targeted with stricter moral requirements”. Another characteristic of political scandals are their uncertain outcomes. How “big” the story will become depends on the number of friends and critics, the conditions, and also the competition with other news outlets and the reactions of those scandalized. According to the four authors Allern, Kantola, Pollack, and Blach-Ørsten there is no evidence in their present study to suggest women in politics become victims of scandal more frequently than men – but the consequences are very different. While 65 percent of female officials were forced to resign after a scandal, just 33 percent of their male colleagues met the same fate. In contrast to men, women who are involved in scandals are not easily forgiven.

Inspired by Machiavelli’s Il Principe, Anders Todal Jenssen, professor of sociology and political science at Trondheim University in Norway and Audun Fladmoe, a research fellow of political science at Trondheim University, argue that political opponents, whether members of the competing party or not, have their own agenda. “Modern politics also consist of two faces. Politics is both about the struggle to reach broad consensus and to realize common goals and, on the other hand, a struggle for power (…).” Those behind the scenes power struggles stay hidden from the public. As Jenssen and Fladmoe affirm, there is an even stronger belief in the trustworthiness and capacity of politicians in Scandinavia than elsewhere. Taking their cue from Machiavelli, the authors create a cynical list of 10 commandments – a sort of operating guideline for scandalization, to clearly illustrate that political opponents don’t need to do much to publicize a scandal.

According to their guidelines, the case chosen should arouse immediate anger among ordinary citizens and require no pre-existing knowledge or explanation. If no case is available the opponent can either wait for a scandal to arise or simply create one on their own. If enough dirt is thrown, some of it will stick – regardless of the truth. In addition to political victims, a predictable journalist is needed – ideally someone without principles and bounds, who also has access to a large audience and can achieve an “opinion-killing-effect.” Once the scandalization takes its course, “carry more wood to the fireplace. Almost everything will burn if the temperature is high enough.” Those scandalizing other politicians should always refer to high principles and the public morality in order to avoid raising one’s own interests. They should praise the scandal – to give credibility to the accusation and to increase personal esteem.

Sigurd Allern/Ester Pollack (eds.) (2012): Scandalous! The Mediated Construction of Political Scandals in Four Nordic Countries. Göteborg: Nordicom.

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